The Influence of Christianity on the Spanish Conquest of America and the Organization of the Spanish-American Empire
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The Influence of Christianity on the Spanish Conquest of America and the Organization of the Spanish-American Empire*

A thick and obscuring legend of horror has been woven across the warp of the Spanish conquest and regime in America. Most of the current sources available even to the peoples of Spanish American countries are nothing more than pamphlets intending to spread such dark tales. In them, the Spanish regime is known as the “Colony” and is but slightly different from the Conquest. There is no time in an article of this length to offer a detailed analysis of the historiographic material, contrasting it with the primary sources contained in original documents. Instead, I will highlight a handful of traces of the Spanish action in America in order to show in what ways Spain’s Christian soul left an imprint on such action, giving it, first, a unique ethos among all of the historical conquests and, second and very particularly, a moral ethos that stands in sharp contrast to the pragmatic standards that the Enlightenment has bequeathed [End Page 125] us regarding the relations between various peoples and/or political or quasi-political societies.

The Enlightenment is perhaps the movement that has contributed the most to the making and spreading of the black legend. I will establish the rival “enlightened” standards through the work of John Locke, one of its fathers.

1. The split of the social field into two spheres (that of prudence and that of wisdom, or that of “secular” and that of “spiritual” power) and its political repercussions

It is quite certain that violent conquest is usually unjust. There are cases, however, in which a forceful conquest might be just. The conquest of Mexico, for example, could perhaps be one of those cases. Hernán Cortés received the allegiance of many enemies and subjects of the Aztecs; the Aztecs themselves originally submitted to him voluntarily; and hostilities erupted at least in part because of the revulsion caused among the Spaniards by the Aztecs’ idolatry and human sacrifices.1 To be able to form a historiographically reasonable judgment concerning the conquest of other regions of America, one has to take into account many aspects that are often left aside by the works that are given both to our Spanish-American children for their history courses and to children living in other regions of the world. I seek to demonstrate that in order to argue that a conquest or a war is unjust, one has to accept that there is a canon that transcends the mere existence of particular political societies and their respective positive laws. In turn, the acceptance of such a canon may be institutionally embodied within a particular community by both the prophetic and the academic structures that we call, in the Western world, “Church” and “Autonomous University.” Both aspects, the acceptance of the canon of natural law and the differentiated structure of political society, worked together in sixteenth-century Spain and thus produced a concrete practical effect in the orientation and reorientation of the Spanish conquering actions. I intend to show that both aspects [End Page 126] have been and are necessarily excluded by societies that are under the influence of the Enlightenment, and are excluded precisely in the measure in which such societies are influenced by it.

On the Spanish side, one can find evidence of our claims by looking at the prophetic and academic action of Francisco de Vitoria. Because no regime is perfect, a tension between the good man and the good citizen necessarily exists. Now, a concrete regime can be more or less open to that justice that transcends its current state of perfection. This openness requires some measure of “permeability.” If the interpreters and apologists of the status quo do not accept criticisms formulated from the perspective of a free search for truth, then injustice can become like a cancer. This is precisely what did not happen in sixteenth-century Spain, due both to the courage of this theologian, who dared challenge the judgment of the apologists, and to the fact that the people in power in the end paid heed to Vitoria’s indictments. In...